12 December 2013 13:49

Many years ago, as a PhD student working in a traditional lab-focused environment, I often worried if I was really contributing anything to society. 

On my walk to the lab, I passed the same coffee shop every morning. The baristas in that shop, I thought, will affect more people’s lives than I ever will with my research. There is something immediately satisfying about serving a steaming hot cup of coffee early in the morning and seeing that person’s face light up. Research, by contrast, deals in delayed gratification. Results can take decades to make it into practice – if at all.

Citizen-Led Innovation

These thoughts were with me two years ago when we started the Catalyst project, an ambitious effort to take research out of the university and into our local community. The premise was simple: members of our community face real problems every day; by working with them – and doing research together – could we make our research more relevant to people’s lives and achieve greater impact in a shorter space of time?

So, two years ago, after being lucky enough to receive substantial funding, we started to build a network of like-minded academics and community organisers who would research real problems together. The scope was digital technologies for social change. That is, how can developments in computing – smart phones, social networks, data analytics – be used to address practical social issues?

The Catalyst Project

Catalyst builds genuine partnerships between university academics and social entrepeneurs, be they from charities, social enterprises, or community groups. The teams thus formed each spend around nine months working on a fast-paced project during which time they agree on a social challenge, collaboratively design and build a digital solution, and test their solutions with real users. Crucially, the process is democratic: the research questions, methods and findings are all agreed upon equally by all members of the team.

In its two short years, Catalyst has built a network of over 90 community organisations (charities, local authorities, social enterprises, community groups, etc.) and 8 academic departments at Lancaster University. Catalyst has carried out 11 community-university partnerships, working on a diverse range of topics, including: digital services for the homeless, a digital anxiety management tool for people with autism, a mobile trading tracking application aimed at supporting local trading practices, a tool for sharing biometric data across social networks aimed at supporting competitive athletes, and tools that encourage energy users to reflect on the supply side of energy management so that society can be resilient in the face of inevitable energy shortages yet to come.

Across all these projects lie the common themes of: (1) citizen researchers innovating through partnerships between the University and its community; (2) digital innovations addressing real problems with real people.

Making a Difference

So, having made a career out of lab-based research, and then switching to working with citizen researchers in the community, do I still feel I would be better off serving coffee to sleepy commuters?

I could go on about the number of projects Catalyst has run, the number of people involved, and the number of publications we’ve written. The real impact of Catalyst, however, lies not in the numbers but in the hundreds of lives that the project has touched – both positively and negatively. It would be nice to think that Catalyst has had only positive influences on people, but I am the first to admit that some people have found Catalyst difficult, or disagreed with its objectives, or gone along with the excitement only to be ultimately disappointed. On the other hand, there are countless stories of people – from both within the University and outside – who have found themselves thinking differently because of Catalyst, or found themselves able to do something they couldn’t have done by themselves. This is the real success story of Catalyst.

In the coming months, we plan to collect together many of these stories. We have already done this to some extent through our partner video company Ourus, which has produced a very nice set of videos all available on YouTube. However, there are lots more stories left to gather. We plan to commission an external assessor to independently assess the value and impact of Catalyst. And we plan to update our website content in the next 6 months to reflect concrete stories of the impact of the research. We also plan a big jamboree event in September or October of 2014 to showcase all the great things achieved so far.

In the meantime, in anticipation of all those great stories to come, I’ll finish with a quote from one of the people who has been involved in Catalyst: “The most rewarding thing was when we brought one of our service users back from Manchester… he said, ‘there is such a big world out there… I need to do something.’ To me, that summed up what we were about. It’s about opening doors to people that wouldn’t think of walking through them in normal circumstances.” (Sharon Calverley, formerly Director of Operations at Signposts Morecambe. Signposts was a partner in the first Catalyst project.)

Coffee or not, research can make a difference.

What do you think? Share your comments with us below.

  • Catalyst is made possible by a dedicated team of researchers, community volunteers, students and administrative staff who have worked tirelessly over the last two years. Learn more about Catalyst at our annual event in Infolab21 on Friday December 13.


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